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Beyond Biotechnology

The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering

Craig Holdrege

Publication Year: 2008

In 2001 the Human Genome Project announced that it had successfully mapped the entire genetic content of human DNA. Scientists, politicians, theologians, and pundits speculated about what would follow, conjuring everything from nightmare scenarios of state-controlled eugenics to the hope of engineering disease-resistant newborns. As with debates surrounding stem-cell research, the seemingly endless possibilities of genetic engineering will continue to influence public opinion and policy into the foreseeable future. Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering distinguishes between the hype and reality of this technology and explains the nuanced and delicate relationship between science and nature. Authors Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott evaluate the current state of genetic science and examine its potential applications, particularly in agriculture and medicine, as well as the possible dangers. The authors show how the popular view of genetics does not include an understanding of the ways in which genes actually work together in organisms. Simplistic and reductionist views of genes lead to unrealistic expectations and, ultimately, disappointment in the results that genetic engineering actually delivers. The authors explore new developments in genetics, from the discovery of “non-Darwinian” adaptative mutations in bacteria to evidence that suggests that organisms are far more than mere collections of genetically driven mechanisms. While examining these issues, the authors also answer vital questions that get to the essence of genetic interaction with human biology: Does DNA “manage” an organism any more than the organism manages its DNA? Should genetically engineered products be labeled as such? Do the methods of the genetic engineer resemble the centuries-old practices of animal husbandry? Written for lay readers, Beyond Biotechnology is an accessible introduction to the complicated issues of genetic engineering and its potential applications. In the unexplored space between nature and laboratory, a new science is waiting to emerge. Technology-based social and environmental solutions will remain tenuous and at risk of reversal as long as our culture is alienated from the plants and animals on which all life depends.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Culture of the Land

Front cover

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pp. iv


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pp. v

List of Illustrations

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pp. vi

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pp. vii-ix

In Part I of this book we look at agricultural biotechnology. Our main concern is to show that we cannot understand genetic engineering and its implications unless we begin to view it within larger biological, organismic, ecological, economic, and societal contexts. Many of the problems of genetic engineering arise because we lack an awareness and ...

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1 Sowing Technology

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pp. 3-15

Drive the Nebraskan backroads in July, and you will encounter one of the great technological wonders of the modern world: thousands of acres of corn extending to the vanishing point in all directions across the table-flat landscape. It appears as lush and perfect a stand of vegetation as you will find anywhere on earth—almost every plant...

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2 Golden Genes and World Hunger

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pp. 16-27

Having become disenchanted with the early hype about genetic engineering, we were struck by the announcement in 1999 of a new genetically engineered crop that looked less like an arbitrary exercise in the manipulation of nature than an altruistic attempt to improve the human condition. If biotechnology can display beneficent potentials, how ...

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3 Will Biotech Feed the World?

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pp. 28-41

When giving presentations about genetic engineering and agriculture, we find that one of the most frequent questions is about feeding the world. How are we going to feed a growing human population, when already many millions of people around the globe are undernourished and suffering from hunger and even starvation? On a planet of more ...

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4 We Label Orange Juice, Why Not Genetically Modified Food?

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pp. 42-56

It is reasonable to expect that a label will tell you something significant about the food you buy. Because of widespread deceptive labeling, Con-gress began passing laws in the early 1900s to regulate food labels. The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was first passed in 1938 and has been amended numerous times. In connection with the identity of food it ...

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5 Genes Are Not Immune to Context

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pp. 59-63

One of the most widespread misconceptions concerning the nature of genes is that they have a defined and fixed function that allows them to operate the same in all organisms and environments. We have a picture of robust genes determining all the characteristics an organism has. And any given gene will do the same thing in a bacterium as ...

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6 The Gene

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pp. 64-71

This short chapter is about the gene and includes many statements about this central concept of modern biology from geneticists and from historians and philosophers of science. The quotes cited here are like footprints, indicating the pathway and evolution of modern genetics. A fascinating biography of a concept emerges. And the results of research ...

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7 Reflections on the Human Genome Project

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pp. 72-82

During the 1990s molecular biologists were fully engaged in a race to determine the complete DNA sequence in various organisms. And they succeeded—first in bacteria, then in yeast, and finally in a well-researched roundworm (C. elegans). In early 2000 the DNA sequence of the fruit fly, the genetic workhorse of the twentieth century, was completed. In June ...

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8 Me and My Double Helixes

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pp. 83-96

In his book Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, McKibben repeatedly comes back to this point. A lover of running, he says that “if my parents had somehow altered my body so that I could run more quickly, that fact would have robbed running of precisely the meaning I draw from it”—the meaning that comes from exertions and achievements he could call his own (48)...

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9 Logic, DNA, and Poetry

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pp. 97-108

In January 1956, Herbert Simon, who would later win the Nobel Prize in economics, walked into his classroom at Carnegie Institute of Technology and announced, “Over Christmas Allen Newell and I invented a thinking machine.” His invention was the “Logic Theorist,” a computer program designed to work through and prove logical theorems. Simon’s ...

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10 The Cow

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pp. 111-122

The tall tree on the next page probably does not match your mental picture of a typical white oak (Quercus alba). The trunk appears disproportionately long and narrow and the crown is small compared to the trunk. Is this tree unhealthy? No. It is perfectly healthy, but it is shown out of context. Set in the middle of a forest, it would look like most of the...

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11 The Forbidden Question

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pp. 123-131

Few of us would want to condemn a wolf to the life of a house pet. But we can be quite sure that sometime in the human past wolves, or similar wild creatures, were in fact domesticated. Was this a bad thing? It does not seem that a dog whose business is herding sheep or retrieving fowl has such a bad life. Nor do these dogs seem perverse additions to the ...

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12 What Does It Mean to Be a Sloth?

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pp. 132-153

We are losing animals. Not only numerically through the extinction of species, but we also are losing them in our understanding. Perhaps it might be better to say we’ve rarely taken animals as whole, integrated beings seriously, and therefore they have never really come into view for us....

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13 The Language of Nature

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pp. 157-201

To judge from some of the ancient creation narratives, the world arose as a visible manifestation of speech. “In the beginning was the Word.” First there was formlessness and chaos, and then the divine voice flashed forth like lightning in the darkness. “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” The world began to assume visible, comprehensible form....

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14 Delicate Empiricism

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pp. 202-228

I (Craig Holdrege) have vivid memories of Mr. Sinn’s ninth grade science class. We did experiments with glassware, tubes, and Bunsen burners—they were fun. But then Mr. Sinn taught us how to explain the results of our experiments. He described molecular processes that we didn’t see. These became schemes with letters and numbers on the ...

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pp. 229-230

This book grew out of our work at The Nature Institute, a small non-profit organization financially supported through the generosity of individual donors and foundation grants. We would like to thank all our contributing “Friends of The Nature Institute” and also thank and recognize those organizations that, over the past eight years, have supported...


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pp. 231-245


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pp. 247-262

E-ISBN-13: 9780813129471
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813124841

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Culture of the Land